Academic bullying – one of many stories 

Despite the fact that the video call connection was grainy, the distress of the researcher was palpable. Throughout his long-standing academic career, he had never been in a situation like this and was deeply upset and angry. He was also hoping that sharing his experience might help to prevent others from having to face similar situations. That’s why he turned to me – someone he only knew on the basis of a previous blog – to write about the subject using his story. I promised I’d try.  

Marcelo’s story

The main character in the story is a university researcher from a Finnish university, we’ll just call him Marcelo for the sake of this blog. Marcelo enjoys his work, even though it can be overwhelming at times. The unit in which he works has set very lofty academic goals, with the result that the personnel occasionally feel overextended. But that’s not the point of this story, just part of the context – and, indeed, a familiar aspect of the work of many employees within the academic world.  

Marcelo is also burdened in his work at the university by the fact that the primary language of the work community is Finnish, which is not his native language. This, however, is also only part of the context of the story – and, indeed, a familiar aspect for many international researchers in Finland. 

The reason why Marcelo is so upset and angry is that he has experienced bullying and being disrespected in his workplace. The problems arose gradually. The work distribution between himself and his supervisor had long been clear: Marcelo does the research work in the field and his supervisor applies for project funding – and takes the credit. They have a good relationship; one might even say they are friends. This scenario worked as long as Marcelo didn’t question anything. However, a dispute about the assessment process concerning his performance began to cause the situation to go askew.  

Marcelo felt that his supervisor was belittling his work, concealing essential research and research funding data, and discrediting him in front of colleagues. University management has been dragging its feet in terms of settling the matter, which has allowed the problems to escalate. The final result is that Marcelo is now thinking and acting in ways that he doesn’t feel reflect him as a person: he sees everything in a negative light, is unenthusiastic about his work, and behaves poorly to get his voice even remotely heard. 

Factors that make one vulnerable to bullying in university workplaces

During the video call, Marcelo explains his situation strictly from his own perspective. Since he is angry and bitter about what he has experienced, I assume that, at this point in the actual chain of events, he does not even want to consider the situation from the perspective of his supervisor or the management. The purpose of this blog is not, however, to communicate an objective view of events at a specific university. Despite the fact that Marcelo’s telling of the story may be coloured by his subjective viewpoint, it sadly illustrates typical factors behind bullying in the university community and challenges to the resolution of disputes.  

In university workplaces, the relationships between employees are vaguely permeated by power. Work cultures that are based on peer assessment are generally founded on equality and collegiality. This idealistic approach, however, overlooks the fact that senior researchers always have power based on their position in the workplace in relation to early career researchers (see Tight, 2023). The misuse of this power can be particularly difficult to prevent and identify. For example, agreeing on merits for joint projects in advance can feel petty if the assumption is that all parties involved are friends and pursuing the same goals.  This can, in the end, turn out to be a deceptive assumption. 

When a workplace emphasises the importance of ambitious goals – such as is the case at universities – competition between parties can suddenly create an unhealthy foundation for co-operation. It is not insignificant when it comes to being credited with success, since the resulting merits determine an individual’s chances for advancement in their university career. Competition fosters envy and envy fosters bullying, as Anna-Elena Pääkkölä (2019, 18) has stated in her excellent article on the toxic academic culture.  

In Marcelo’s story, his background as an international researcher has likely also played a role. FUURT’s member survey (Puhakka, 2023) and a literature review on academic bullying (Tight, 2023) both indicate that groups in the margins are more susceptible to bullying in different ways within the university workplace.  

Don’t go it alone

Marcelo has compiled a list of actions that he wants to recommend to others who have experienced bullying in the workplace. The list primarily complies with general instructions. One action that, to my dismay, was missing from his list was to turn to a shop steward for help. I recommended that Marcelo join a trade union and immediately contact his local shop steward. Shop stewards and occupational health and safety delegates can play a key role in ensuring that experiences are handled appropriately and that all parties are heard on the matter. Additionally, the earlier help is sought, the easier it will be to resolve the situation. No one who has experienced bullying should be left to deal with it all on their own. 

Sanni Tiitinen 

The author is Vice President of the Board of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers. She works as a Senior Researcher at Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, yoga, and jogging with her dogs. 


Puhakka, Antero (2023). Consecutive, parallel and overlapping (Peräkkäin, rinnan ja päällekkäin in Finnish). FUURT’s membership survey 2022.  

Pääkkölä, Anna-Elena (2019). Academic bullying and the toxic academic culture (Akateeminen kiusaaminen ja toksinen akateeminen kulttuuri in Finnish). Tieteessä tapahtuu, 37(4), 17-24.  

Tight, Malcolm (2023) Bullying in higher education: an endemic problem? Tertiary Education and Management, 27(29), 123-137.